Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Europe Clings to Old Ways

Tibor R. Machan

Valparaiso, Chile. I do not wear a sign saying “I am a champion of human liberty.” Yet I often run into other frequent travelers on the road who share my concerns about the lack of appreciation for freedom around the globe.

This time I had taken a bus trip from Santiago, Chile, to Valparaiso just for the fun of it. When we finally stopped for a bit of lunch at a very pleasant restaurant overlooking the ancient port, I sat across from a Polish businessman who was similarly mixing business with pleasure. He represents a multinational company that trades in various energy products and services. He speaks excellent English, so conversation between us began to flow very easily.

He confirmed to me something I had heard before, namely, that one great obstacle to progress toward freedom in Poland as well as other former Soviet bloc countries comes from former Soviet bloc bureaucrats and politicians. Having rechristened themselves so as to hide their true convictions, members of the deposed ruling class are doing whatever they can to sabotage any advances toward a free society.

Unfortunately, as new my Polish acquaintance pointed out, the bulk of Europe still embraces old time vices. Too many are rediscovering the charms of ethnic pride, for example, thus giving support not to liberal political parties but to nationalist leaders, along with all the hoary economic nonsense with which such sentiments are usually coupled—protectionism, tariffs that repel foreign competition, and laws that serve as impediments to investment from abroad.

The worse thing, however, that people trying to do business in Poland and elsewhere face is the widely entrenched tradition of layers and layers of bureaucracy creating so many needless rules that only the most vigilant will enter the market and seek to flourish in their midst. Into the middle of this, then, steps the clever organized criminal who has no compunction about using strong-arm means with which to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and who will, for a price, help you do so as well. The temptation to get into bed with such dubious characters is enormous since for what they charge, it pays to have the tedious rules circumvented. Sure, one is walking on eggs getting into bed with these people but often legitimate entrepreneurs see no other way to stay afloat and get things done. The bribes, my new pal told me, are just the cost of doing business for most folks who are willing to take advantage of such “connections.”

No, this is not only happening in Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary or some other country previously part of the Soviet bloc. It’s on the increase throughout Europe now because one result of this wonderful constructivist monster, the European Union, is the volumes of regulations placed before business people preventing them from getting useful work done.

At one time, my Polish friend noted, it was possible to point to the United States of America which at least promoted the idea of a free market system, of reducing government regulations and so on—say back in the Reagan era which although failing to do much about the heaps and heaps of rules at least talked a good game in favor of free markets. But, he noted, these days America’s credibility as a leader of the free world is very wobbly and at least when it comes to advancing the ideas of economic freedom, open competition, the free flow of labor and capital, George W. Bush & his team are not the leaders to look to.

Of course, in the midst of these laments we both thanked our lucky stars for no longer living under the Soviet system, indeed, for the pleasure and advantages of being able to travel freely. So, with such progress having been made, we both concluded on an optimistic note, hoping that liberty will win out after all.

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